ROMANS 7:15-25. THE BIG QUESTION
The big question regarding this passage is whether Paul is using “I” autobiographically (speaking about his own experience) or is using “I” more generally to refer to the condition of unregenerate (non-Christian) people. The question arises because Paul’s words in 7:15 ff. seem inconsistent with what he said in chapter 6. There he said, “We who died to sin, how could we live in it any longer? …knowing this, that our old man was crucified with him, that the body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be in bondage to sin” (6:2, 6). How, then, can he say in chapter 7, “But if what I don’t desire, that I do, it is no more I that do it, but sin which dwells in me” (7:20)? How can Paul, a Christian no longer enslaved by sin (chapter 6), find himself still under sin’s control (chapter 7)?
Early church fathers thought that Paul was describing an unregenerate person in chapter 7, but Augustine (well acquainted with sins of the flesh) disagreed, believing that Paul was describing a Christian dilemma. Reformation leaders agreed with Augustine, but pietists took exception, believing that a person in the grip of sin could not be a Christian (Moo, 444 ff.—Moo provides a good list of reasons supporting each position). Today, scholars are divided today about this issue. There are two possibilities:
• Paul is describing his personal struggle with sin (and, implicitly, the struggle that all Christians face).
• Paul is describing unregenerate humanity, not yet redeemed by Christ.
I feel strongly that Paul is describing his own struggle with sin—a struggle common to all Christians. My reasons are threefold:
• First, a number of good theologians support this position, so I do not fear that I am venturing beyond my depth to promulgate questionable interpretation.
• Second, when there is an obvious way and a less obvious way to understand a text, the hermeneutical principle is to favor the obvious reading. If we were to ask intelligent laypeople who Paul was talking about in this passage, I am confident that most would say that he was talking about himself. If so, that is the obvious way to understand the text, and is to be preferred.
• Third, what Paul says in this passage tracks with our experience. He wanted to do the right thing, but sometimes failed to do so (v. 15). We have experienced the same thing, and sometimes find ourselves not even wanting to do the right thing. We might fear that this would place us among the unregenerate, except that we have known enough Christians to believe that we have lots of company among the redeemed.
I conclude that Christians stand with one foot in the kingdom of this world and the other foot in the kingdom of God, and it is the tension between those two worlds that gives rise to the apparent inconsistency of Paul’s words in Romans 6 and 7. While, at baptism, we die to sin and are resurrected to new life (6:1-14), our sanctification is not instantaneous but is instead a process that continues throughout life and will be fully realized only at our resurrection. We therefore find ourselves not understanding our own actions (v. 15)—failing to do what we want and doing what we hate (v. 15)—willing what is right, but failing to do it (v. 18)—and doing the evil that we do not want to do (v. 19). There is a war going on within us (v. 23), and sin sometimes takes us captive (v. 23).
ROMANS 7:15-17. I DON’T KNOW WHAT I AM DOING
15For I don’t know what I am doing. For I don’t practice what I desire to do; but what I hate, that I do. 16But if what I don’t desire, that I do, I consent to the law that it is good. 17So now it is no more I that do it, but sin which dwells in me.
“For I don’t know what I am doing. For I don’t practice what I desire to do; but what I hate, that I do“ (v. 15). Paul is perplexed by the inconsistency between his nature as a Christian and his actions, which are unworthy of his Christian nature. He finds it confusing—perplexing—not to be in better control of his own actions—to find himself doing what he hates—to find himself doing what he knows to be wrong.
“But if what I don’t desire, that I do, I consent to the law that it is good“ (v. 16). Earlier, Paul said, “you also were made dead to the law” (7:4). He went on to say, “For when we were in the flesh, the sinful passions which were through the law, worked in our members to bring forth fruit to death. But now we have been discharged from the law, having died to that in which we were held; so that we serve in newness of the spirit, and not in oldness of the letter” (7:5-6). We might imagine that he thinks badly of the law, but he corrects that impression by saying, “I consent to the law that it is good” (v. 16). In fact, his desire to do the right thing testifies to his agreement that the law is good. The law provides helpful guidance—Godly counsel. The problem is not the law but Paul’s inability to keep it faithfully. He would like to do what the law requires, but finds himself doing otherwise.
“So now it is no more I that do it, but sin which dwells in me“ (v. 17). If Paul appears to be at the controls of his life but finds himself moving in unexpected and unwanted directions, there must be some other force at work behind the scenes—another actor, so to speak, moving levers behind the curtain—unseen but powerful. Paul identifies this actor as sin.
ROMANS 7:18-20. IN MY FLESH DWELLS NO GOOD THING
18For I know that in me, that is, in my flesh, dwells no good thing. For desire is present with me, but I don’t find it doing that which is good. 19For the good which I desire, I don’t do; but the evil which I don’t desire, that I practice. 20But if what I don’t desire, that I do, it is no more I that do it, but sin which dwells in me.
Verses 18-20 restate what Paul said in verses 14-17. For the most part, the people to whom Paul is writing will hear his letter read aloud. Paul’s restatement of the earlier verses might stem from his desire to reinforce what he said in the earlier verses.
ROMANS 7:21-23. A DIFFERENT LAW IN MY MEMBERS
21 I find then the law, that, to me, while I desire to do good, evil is present. 22For I delight in God’s law after the inward man, 23but I see a different law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity under the law of sin which is in my members.
“I find then the law, that, to me, while I desire to do good, evil is present” (v. 21). When Paul speaks of “law” here, he is speaking of a general principle, i.e., “I find then the general principle, that….” While Paul wants to do what is good, he finds evil lying in hiding, ready to ambush his noblest desires.
“For I delight in God’s law after the inward man” (v. 22). Earlier in this epistle, Paul made statements about Torah law that sounded negative. The problem, however, was not the law but rather the human weakness that is revealed when placed alongside the law’s perfect standard. Paul now makes it clear that he delights in the law of God in his inmost self (v. 22). His words bring to mind Psalm 19, where the psalmist speaks of God’s law as “perfect, restoring the soul” (Psalm 19:7) and “more to be desired than gold” and “sweeter also than honey” (Psalm 19:10). His words also bring to mind Psalm 119:1, where the psalmist says, “Blessed are those whose ways are blameless, who walk according to Yahweh’s law.” At the core of his being, Paul delights in the essential goodness of God’s law— but v. 23 reveals another side to the story.
“but I see a different law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity under the law of sin which is in my members” (v. 23). Paul is conscious of a war going on inside himself. The part of him that loves God’s law is at war with the part that results in him being “captivity under the law of sin.” This relates to verse 15, where Paul talked about doing what he did not want. The fact that the war continues, however, means that Paul has not been defeated. He is continuing to fight—and, in his “inmost self,” he continues to “delight in God’s law” (v. 22).
ROMANS 7:24-25a. WHO WILL DELIVER ME FROM THIS BODY OF DEATH?
24 What a wretched man I am! Who will deliver me out of the body of this death? 25a I thank God through Jesus Christ, our Lord!
“What a wretched man I am! Who will deliver me out of the body of this death?” (v. 24). Paul feels wretched because he isn’t able to live in accord with his new nature. Christ has brought him the possibility of life, but he feels trapped in a death-destined body. But he asks, “Who will deliver me….?” while knowing the answer to that question—see the next verse.
“I thank God through Jesus Christ, our Lord” (v. 25). This verse answers the question that Paul raised in v. 24. It is God, working through Jesus Christ, who will rescue him from this body of death.
ROMANS 7:25b. WITH THE MIND—WITH THE FLESH
25bSo then with the mind, I myself serve God’s law, but with the flesh, the sin’s law.
The lectionary reading, apparently wanting to close on a high note of thanksgiving (v. 25a), leaves out verse 25b, where Paul returns to the inner conflict that rages within him. With his mind he is a slave to the law of God, but with his flesh he is a slave to the law of sin.
While that might seem discouraging, it is possible to see the ongoing warfare within Paul as a sign of spiritual health. Sin continues to assault him. Like a deadly virus, it tries to take over Paul’s life, but its victory neither complete nor permanent. The war between God and sin rages within and makes Paul miserable, but he is confident about the outcome. He will go on to say that ” the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus made me free from the law of sin and of death” (8:2). He will say, “If Christ is in you, the body is dead because of sin, but the spirit is alive because of righteousness. But if the Spirit of him who raised up Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised up Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you” (8:10-11). That is the real high note on which to end.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Dunn, James D. G., Word Biblical Commentary: Romans 1-8, Vol. 38A (Dallas: Word Books, 1988)
Gaventa, Beverly R. in Brueggemann, Walter; Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV — Year A (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995)
Hunsinger, George, in Van Harn, Roger E. (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: The Second Readings: Acts and the Epistles (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001)
Moo, Douglas, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: Romans (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996)
Morris, Leon, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Co, 1988)
Mounce, Robert H., The New American Commentary: Romans, (Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1995)
Wright, N. Thomas, The New Interpreter’s Bible: Acts, Romans, 1 Corinthians, Vol. X (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002)
Copyright 2008, 2011, 2017, Richard Niell Donovan